The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed worries over the rapid evolution of COVID-19, saying it is an indicator for action.
According to the WHO, 12 countries in Africa are currently experiencing local transmission. As at today March 19), over 600 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in 34 countries in Africa, compared with 147 cases one week ago. Although there are still fewer cases of the infection in Africa than in other parts of the world, the WHO is worried that the region has seen a significant increase in confirmed cases recently.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, is hopeful that the continent and the world can still change the course of this pandemic. This he said could be achieved, added that “Governments must draw on all of their resources and capabilities and strengthen their response.”
The WHO says it is crucial that governments prevent local transmission from evolving into a worst case scenario of widespread sustained community transmission. Such a scenario will present a major challenge to countries with weak health systems.
“Africa can learn from the experiences of other countries which have seen a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases through rapidly scaling up testing, isolating cases and meticulously tracking contacts,” Dr Moeti said.
Although a lot is still unknown about how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve in Africa, the WHO says the response will need to be adapted to the African context, as the the demographics on the continent are very different from China, Europe and the USA.
Africa has the world’s youngest population. Although it appears that older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, preliminary analysis has also revealed that people with underlying conditions are at higher risk. Across the Region, nearly 26 million people are living with HIV. Over 58 million children have stunted growth due to malnutrition. So it is possible that younger people will be more at risk in Africa than in other parts of the world, the WHO statement noted.
Meanwhile, WHO has been supporting governments with early detection by providing COVID-19 testing kits to countries in Africa, training lab technicians, and strengthening surveillance in communities. Forty-five countries in Africa can now test for COVID-19: at the start of the outbreak only two could do so. WHO is also providing remote support to affected countries on the use of electronic data tools, so national health authorities can better understand the outbreak in their countries. Personal protective equipment has been shipped to 24 countries, and a second shipment is being prepared for countries with confirmed cases.
“COVID-19 is one of the biggest health challenges Africa has faced in a generation. We can only stop this virus through solidarity. And the world is coming together. Donors are stepping up to the plate and providing funding while private sector in many countries are offering their support as well,” Moeti said.
In Africa and other parts of the world, lessons learnt in addressing previous epidemics are being used as a foundation to respond.
However, basic preventative measures by individuals and communities remain the most powerful tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, reason the WHO says it is helping local authorities craft radio messaging and TV spots to inform the public about the risks of COVID-19 and what measures should be taken. WHO is also conducting rumour management in all affected countries, and is guiding countries on setting up call-centres and hotlines to ensure the public is informed.